Our Guyanese women writers have found their voice in a way that belies their previous role as ‘peripheral creatures’ (Beryl Gilroy). Even though that voice may appear vindictive, it is more a vindication of its value to society than a quarrel with the voice of its male counterparts who treated women condescendingly (in literature). And in so doing, these women writers have lent validity to our literature because they see, perceive, feel and respond differently to elements in a male-dominated world. They enriched the literature with that element and can be credited for doing much more. For instance, they are better able, according to Merle Collins, to ‘tease out the truth’ as they explore themes like man-woman relationship, sexism, human happiness, religious bigotry, moral values and social injustice.
The current consummate female voice emerged from decades of imperceptible growth, perhaps, in the words of Virginia Woolf who contended that while the men made great strides, the women were constrained to mince. Constraints came in many forms, some subscribed to by women themselves like those lacking self-confidence to publish or those too self-critical of their work. Guyanese women writers of Indian ancestry endured additional constraints peculiar to their ethnicity, social and religious values. But having said that, Guyanese women writers, on the whole, were more fortunate than their sisters in other societies.
The first recorded instance of writing by a woman in Guyana seemed to be in the genre of drama. The `ROMANCE OF KAIETEUR’ was written by Esme Cendrecourt in 1931. The first recorded collection of plays seemed to be, `FIVE PLAYS’, by Dorothy Collier, published by the Daily Chronicle in 1948. What is peculiar about those two instances is that women turned first to one of the more effective tools in writing and that the stage at that time seemed set to encourage that type of writing by women.
However, a steady flow of writings by women seemed to have started in the 1940s.
For examples of writings by our women writers we’d have to turn back the pages of main magazines like the CHRISTMAS TIDE, the CHRISTMAS ANNUAL, the CARIBIA and journals like DRAMAG, KYKOVERAL, KAIE and NEW WORLD. Those periodicals first of all offered an outlet to the voice, then fostered and preserved it.
On looking back to the 1940s and 1950s, we would find names like Celeste Dolphin, B. Zorina Ishmael, Helen Taitt, Jacqueline DeWeever, Joy Allsopp, Margaret E. Bayley, Edwina Melville and others producing poetry and short stories. Of this lot, two writers compiled some of their stories in book form. CHILDREN OF GUIANA by Dolphin came out in 1953 while TEDDY THE TOUCAN by Allsopp surfaced later.
The 1960s seemed to be a fertile period for women writing and on the whole Guyanese literature. The Guyana Writers’ Group which consisted of more women than men writers was a motivating factor during that time. Numerous women writers surfaced during this period including Sheila King (who is our oldest active writer), Evadne D’Oliviera, Cecile Nobrega, Doris Harper-Wills, Rajkumari Singh, Syble Douglas and others. The output of some of those women were by then good enough to move to the next logical step – compiling a substantial amount of material written on varying themes over a period of time in book form or anthology.
Rajkumari Singh published A GARLAND OF STORIES in 1960. That was followed by at least four collections of poems namely, `REFLECTIONS’ by Waveney E. Rodrigues in 1962, `FULFILMENT’ by Syble Douglas in 1967, `SOLILOQUIES’ by Cecile Nobrega in 1968 and `SCATTERED LEAVES’ by Leela Sukhu in 1968. In 1967, the first Guyanese anthology of stories was produced comprising the contributions of six women and one man.
The post-Independence period saw a flowering of women writing and the birth of our women novel writing heritage, among other positive growth of Guyanese literature. Our women writers also grabbed world attention. In poetry, Grace Nichols won the Commonwealth Prize, in fiction, Pauline Melville the Whitbread Prize and in drama, Paloma Mohamed the National Drama Association Caribbean Award.
This flowering was due in no small way to a number of enabling features in the society including the formation of the Messenger Group by Rajkumari Singh and the production of the journal, HERITAGE, drawing attention to the ‘coolie art forms’ leading to an explosion of writings by writers of Indian ancestry.
Other encouraging factors included the work of the National History and Arts Council, the continued publication of KAIE journal, the formation of literary groups and the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature.
Additional, publishing houses especially the Peepal Tree Press came along and provided greater visibility to a Guyanese literature, marketing our literature to the world in an unprecedented way.
Springing out of that period were published writers (with at least one book to their name) like Nora Cressall, Elaine J. Herrin, Shana Yardan, Mahadai Das, Jan Lo Shinebourne, Meiling Jin, Parvati Persaud-Edwards, Janet Naidu, Narmala Shewcharan, Oonya Kempadoo, Ryhaan Shah, Maggie Harris, Brenda DoHarris, Denise Harris, Joan Cambridge, Claudia Heywood, Jay Hendricks, Sharon Maas, Elly Niland, Nalo Hopkinson. Lakshmi Persaud, born in Trinidad, taught at Queen’s College in Guyana and now writing out of the UK, is also part of the Guyanese bookshelf with her novel, `FOR THE LOVE OF MY NAME’.
At the time of writing, there are many other women writers awaiting publication, many emerging from the various literary competitions offered by The Guyana Annual and others emerging from the short lists of the Guyana Prize for Literature.
All leading to a more rounded Guyanese society and of course a better life for all courtesy of our women writers.
* Robert E. McDowell. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF LITERATURE FROM GUYANA, 1975
* Balkaran, Lal. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF GUYANA & GUYANESE WRITERS, Canada 2004